Chris Daniel Stewart, Winemaker
Chris, how did you get started in wine?
I had my first start in wine when I was just 14 years old when I began working summers and weekends for both a local Quincy winery and my father’s viticultural/horticultural consulting company. From there I was hooked. I loved everything about the industry and decided to immerse myself fully from that point on.
What significant memories or lessons have you experienced in your training?
Some of the biggest lessons I've learned in the winemaking/grape growing is that you always have to be ready for anything to come your way. For example, during the 2017 vintage in Napa Valley, we had an excessively wet winter, spring hail, extreme summer heat spikes, and fire. You have to learn to be calm and prepared for anything to come your way.
How did your time in France influence you?
I believe that my experience in France most influenced me in the concept of terroir. I always knew of its existence, but after living and working in Burgundy I especially appreciate how important a vineyards terroir can shape a wine and it influences my winemaking considerably.
"There is literally an infinite amount of knowledge to learn, and every vintage is different. I want to continue my quest to make some of the best wines I can, improve every year, and never stop learning and experimenting while doing so"
Tell us about your winemaking experience in California.
What differences have you found in the wine process/terroir/varietals between Washington and California?
I’ve been lucky to have been immersed in both sides of the industry during my time in California. Spanning three counties; Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino (including Anderson Valley), while sourcing Rhone varietals from as far away as the Sierra Foothills. This experience here has really helped me understand the art form of growing premium wine grapes and wine.
Additionally, this has allowed me to see firsthand the diversity that California has to offer - Mendocino produces amazing Zinfandel in extremely warm temperatures to some of the best Pinot Noir I’ve had in the cooler region of Anderson Valley.
Sonoma is so vast, they have ocean-kissed Pinot and hot climate mountain grown Cabernet bordering Napa. And the tiny Napa Valley is home to some 16 different sub-AVAs.
So for me to pinpoint a specific characteristic of California is somewhat difficult. Conversely, one of our growers we source fruit from here in Washington State perfectly described the Columbia Valley AVA as such an amazing wine growing region, that it is almost unparalleled in the world in that it can grow almost any grape varietal exceptionally. Not too often can you see award winning Cabernet Sauvignon grown not too far away from primo Riesling!
To pinpoint Napa on a spectrum, you could say Napa would be on the more masculine side, Bordeaux being more feminine, with Washington State finding its place somewhere in the middle, ranging vastly. Though, I’ve found it very hard to replicate the big, bold, juicy/jammy, high alcohol Cabernets that makes Napa famous.
I would consider Washington State red wines more balanced, showcasing new world ripe fruit and tannins, while also maintaining bright old world acidity. Being a winemaker who is trying to produce beautifully crafted varietal wines, the Washington State terroir allows me to do so easily.
Since I grow grapes and make wine in Napa, I like to compare Washington to here. One significant difference is average yearly rainfall. The Columbia Valley typically sees an average of 6 to 8 inches, while parts of the Napa Valley can see averages of 48 inches. Compare this to Columbia Valleys typically sandy loam soils which were created by the Missoula floods, to Napa’s soil types which typically see much clay loam, especially on the valley floor, and thus have a better water holding capacity. This means that Washington State has to irrigate much more often than in Napa, which also gives us much more control over how we manage the vigor, and subsequently, the quality of our wine grapes.
Washington State being further north also receives more sunlight during the peak season, up to two hours more. This creates a longer growing season for us. Washington State can boast 300 days of sunshine annually in the Columbia Valley, while the Napa typically sees just 260. Though some of the Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Verdot, for example, can linger on the vines dangerously late in the fall, where snow and freezing temperatures can threaten the crop. Napa, on the other hand, usually doesn’t see freezing temperatures too often, but being a Mediterranean climate, there is a higher risk of rain and fog late season, increasing the risk of rot and green flavors and under ripe tannins. But also, we can see heat spikes in the 100s late September as well.
Another fascinating characteristic of the Washington State wine growing region is that it is phylloxera free. This soil born insect decimated most wine growing regions around the world in the last century. Places such as France and California had to adjust by grafting Vitis Vinifera to resistant grape rootstocks that were native to America. Due to Washington’s sanctuary location, grape vines are self-rooted, partially because they don’t need the resistant rootstock, but also because cold winters can kill a vine to the ground. I’ve had to adjust my viticulture knowledge and techniques once moving to Napa. Learning how to farm with a wide variety of rootstocks, that affect the growth and maturity of grapes, and studying soil types to find the perfect pairing of rootstock to each vineyard I’ve developed.